Showcasing three 20th-century works, completed within a decade of each other, all with an American influence, the Ulster Orchestra’s audience were promised an exciting evening for its penultimate concert of the season. The first half focused on works with neo-classical influences, Igor Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet © Benjamin Ealovega
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Benjamin Ealovega

Commissioned in 1937 during Stravinsky’s neo-classical period, for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert and Mildred Bliss, Stravinsky composed a piece modelled on Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Naming the work after the house in which it was premiered, the first performance was conducted by Nadia Boulanger. In tonight’s performance the orchestral sound of the small body of strings became slightly lost and the woodwind solos didn’t always have sufficient projection, possibly because the players were set too far back on the platform. The cautious tempo Antony Hermus chose and the lack of rhythmic vitality throughout the whole piece did not start the concert in as exciting a style as had been envisaged.

Next came Ravel’s G major concerto. The composer himself had originally intended to give the première, but due to illness passed the baton to the celebrated French pianist Maugerite Long. Cast in three movements, not dissimilar to Mozart’s concertos, the piece is packed full of jazz and classical elegance. Tonight the work was played by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a work at the core of his repertoire. Bavouzet almost skipped with excitement onto the platform, it was clearly a sign of things to come. From the whip-snap that starts the concerto, the first movement filled the hall with the sounds and energy of both the elegant Parisian boulevards and the bustling streets of Manhattan. The orchestra played with an increasing rhythmic vibrancy and colour, Bavouzet however was obviously the star, he played with real joy and panache in a work he is truly at one with.

The audience were drawn in with a perfectly paced solo which opened the second movement. His right-hand tone was clear ensuring that haunting melody had a bell-like quality over the lilting left-hand accompaniment. A breathless audience sat motionless held in a moment of reverie on reaching the long trill that ends the central movement. Bavouzet’s sense of fun was contagious in the final movement. He completely dazzled the audience with the brilliance of his technique. After a real romp through the closing movement, the final notes still resounding a roar of ecstasy that hasn’t been heard in Belfast for quite some time filled the Ulster Hall. The audience were not going to allow Bavouzet to leave without an encore. He announced Debussy's L’Isle joyeuse, immediately followed by a “Bravo”. Despite the premature acclamation of praise, we were not disappointed with this exhilarating extra.

After the interval, the orchestra was hugely augmented to include extra percussionists and a saxophonist amongst others in Rachmaninov’s orchestral showpiece, the Symphonic Dances. This was composer’s final work, written in 1940 and premiered in America, the work is very much the composer’s retrospective. Hermus put the players through their paces here and the orchestra came into their own, playing with one united voice. Rhythmic clarity, which had been lacking at times, appeared in abundance now, the first movement energetic and sweeping, the tone rich and full bodied, everything one would expect. The second movement had some very tender moments and an ethereal quality. In the finale, Rachmaninov quotes the Dies irae chant he was obsessed with throughout his life. Hermus allowed this haunting chant to shine through the rich textures. The final strike of the gong resonated through the hall with real pathos. There was a prolonged silence, giving the audience a moment of reflection on a carefully considered and excellent interpretation.